Friday, May 26, 2017

Review: The Darkness Knows by Cheryl Honigford

Title: The Darkness Knows
Author: Cheryl Honigford
Genre: Mystery
Release Date: August 2016
Rating: 4/5 stars
Although I’m not a big mystery reader, I am a big fan of 1930’s film noir and detective stories, so when I learned about The Darkness Knows, which centers on a radio star in 1938 Chicago solving a mystery, I knew I had to pick it up. If you’re a fan of old-school detective stories but yearn for a female lead, this book does not disappoint. Vivian Witchell, a rising star at a Chicago radio station, is trying to make it in the industry and find independence from her life of wealth and privilege. Meanwhile, a murder, a mysterious fan note, and a handsome P.I. interrupt her career path and turn her into a makeshift sleuth. Vivian works with Charlie Haverman, the P.I. consultant on her detective serial radio show, to solve the murder of a well-known but not well-liked colleague at the radio station. In an industry where would-be stars will do anything to get ahead, there seem to be enemies everywhere, but Vivian is smart, capable, and observant, making her an excellent amateur sleuth. I also appreciated that Vivian wasn’t a prude or judgemental about sex, which I always enjoy in a leading character.  

Besides Vivian’s plucky attitude and strong personality, I also enjoyed Charlie’s character. He’s tough, but is willing to listen to Vivian’s feedback and ideas. He also appreciates that she’s a modern woman and not looking to dumb herself down to appeal to a man, and he has the tough guy appeal without coming off as an alphahole. I found him to be an appealing lead, and was rooting for him and Vivian to get together in the end. This book, the first in a series, is subtitled a Viv and Charlie Mystery, so hopefully I can look forward to future sleuthing with this likeable pair.

In addition to the well-written leads, the side characters were also a lot of fun to read about. There were some of the stereotypical noir-ish characters, but I enjoy that; the femme fatale, the dashing but fame-obsessed male lead, and everyone has a mysterious past. I did think that Viv’s best friend, Imogene, could have gotten a little more screen time and been fleshed out more. She seemed like an important part of Viv’s life, but we barely got to know her. This book does take place over a relatively short period of time, however, so that may be why.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere of 1930’s Chicago really came through in the storytelling. The author clearly did her research, and you could easily visualize the places that the characters visited. If you are a fan of The Thin Man series or any late 1930’s films, you could easily picture the clothing and the glitzy nightclubs, plus the seedy Chicago backstreets as well. Chicago played a big role in the appeal of the story, and the reader is rooted in that era throughout the story. Overall, this lends a light, escapist tone to The Darkness Knows, and I could easily see this being developed into a television show a la Miss Fisher’s Mysteries.

As far as the mystery aspect goes, I admit that I haven’t read a lot of mysteries (unless you count Nancy Drew books as a child), so maybe I’m a little easier to please than die-hard mystery fans. There were some good twists to the mystery, and good pacing to keep the excitement level up, but I did think that the mystery would have been much simpler to solve if a few characters (not naming names) had spoken up and connected the dots a bit earlier. Plus, Vivian seemed to be telling everyone anything and maybe shouldn’t have revealed all of her cards to so many people. It seems like more could have been done to complicate the mystery while still making it believable and readable. Still, any flaws with the mystery aspect didn’t take away from how much fun I had reading this story. If you need a book that is escapist and engrossing, I definitely recommend The Darkness Knows, and look forward to reading the second installment at the end of the year!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Why I Love Reading Backlist

Although the online bookish community is often focused on new releases or the latest volume of a series, I find that most of my favorite reads lately have been backlist titles. Backlist, as opposed to the frontlist, or new releases, are less recent titles and sometimes get a little left out when booknerds are discussing their TBR lists or reading wrap ups. They're not quite as shiny and new, and they've already been read and reviewed so often they get overlooked. I think this is a mistake; I love going back to the start of an established series and seeing where the characters came from, or picking up an early book by an author who only releases a novel once every five years or so. Below, a few of my reasons for reading backlist as well as some of my recent favorites that I'm newly discovering, even if they are only new to me.

Let's Go Backlist

1. They're easier to get a hold of

With many backlist books, they hype has died down and it is much easier to find a copy on the shelf of my local library, or in paperback on the shelves a bookshop. I don't have to worry about lengthy hold lists, or copies selling out due to some crazy demand after it blows up on the internet or something.

2. Paperbacks > Hardcover

Although hardcover books can be quite beautiful, and I admit that sometimes I will be a hardcover book partially for looks, I would much rather hold and read a paperback copy. They're easy to toss in my bag, they're lighter so I can carry a few at a time, and I don't have to worry about the dust jacket slipping around or getting bent. I love paperback books and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

3. You get to see how an author (and sometimes their characters) have evolved

I love reading an author's latest release, but there is also something to starting at the beginning and watching how their writing changes over the course of a few books or, if it is a series, how a cast of characters evolves over a long story arc. Plus, sometimes authors don't release books every year and they don't have a latest book to read, so picking up backlist titles is the only way to stick with that author's voice consistently.

4. I'm a rebel

When it comes to doing what everyone else is doing, I'm a bit of a brat and a rebel. If there is a new release of a series that everyone online is talking about, I'll usually pass on it until the fuss has died down. If everyone says they love a book, I may pick it up later and read it with the most enthusiastically critical and bitter eye known to man. To put it simply, I like to read what works for me, not necessarily what is being hyped and gushed about by other readers. I think it's because I'm an Aquarius.

5. More books to read

Reading backlist means you're expanding your TBR potential exponentially! If a series that came out like 10 years ago has that many books in it, then what an awesome time to start from book one. You have your next read lined up without having to even think about it! Not like my TBR list is wanting, but I love being able to discover an older series and find out that I'm in love with it and have a whole line of books to look forward to. Plus, if the series is complete, I won't be left waiting for a resolution at the end while the author is still writing it. It's a win-win, really.

Backlist Recommendations: Series

Lady Emily Mysteries by Tasha Alexander
First book originally published: 2009
Genre: Historical mystery

The Others series by Anne Bishop
First book originally published: 2013
Genre: Urban fantasy
All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness
First book originally published: 2011
Genre: Paranormal/Romance
Wallflowers series by Lisa Kleypas
First book originally published: 2004
Genre: Historical romance

Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
First book originally published: 2010
Genre: High fantasy

Craft Sequence series by Max Gladstone
First book originally published: 2012
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Hopefully those are a few backlist titles starting off some complete (and a few ongoing) series to add to your TBR. I love finding a well-established series to dive in to and binge read (as you'll see by my next reading wrap-up). I may pick a few standalone backlist titles to recommend in future posts. Until then, happy reading!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review: Songs of Our Breakup by Jay E. Tria

Title: Songs of Our Breakup
Author: Jay E. Tria
Genre: Contemporary Romance/New Adult
Release Date: August 2015
Rating: 4/5 Stars

The first book in the Playlist series, Jay E. Tria's Songs of Our Breakup follows Jill, a musician and songwriter, as she recovers from her breakup with bandmate Kim, and begins to navigate her feelings for an old friend, Shinta. I went into this book expecting a cute, light contemporary romance read and was pleasantly surprised that the story is a lot deeper than that, addressing how we grow apart from people that we love as we age, the rough emotional period in your early twenties when you're torn between what you want for the future and reluctance to grow up, and depicts a healthy breakup before jumping in to a new relationship.

Taking place in Manila, Jill and her band, Trainman, are making it on the indie music circuit, playing festivals and releasing EPs of original material. Jill is the only girl in the band, and had previously dated the band's leader, Kim, for seven years. When we meet Jill, she and Kim have only been broken up for a few months and, according to her best friend and bandmate, Miki, she is living in the three month recovery period after a breakup. Jill thinks he means that's how long it should take to get back together, but in truth it is the time she needs to decide to move on. The story flashes back to period of Jill and Kim's relationship, both the good and the bad, and to the present, as she tries to figure out how to stay in a band with an ex, and also recognizes that she may have feelings for Shinta, a friend of their group who is a successful, handsome actor in Japan.

Literally me while reading this book
What this book does really well is realistically depict a long term relationship and what it takes to recover from that kind of breakup. The vignettes of Jill and Kim's relationship are nostalgic and relatable, and it makes it easy to see why Jill would have trouble moving on even if she has a handsome friend who has long had a crush on her. I also enjoyed that Jill and Shinta have a backstory and have always gotten along, instead of a meet-cute or a enemies-to-lovers situation that can be so common in these types of stories. The factor keeping them apart is that neither Jill nor Shinta want to rush into a relationship before they are ready, and instead acknowledge the work they need to do before they could be ready to be together. I also loved that Jill is a songwriter, and the lyrics to he band's songs are featured throughout the book. This is the kind of story that is perfect for a beach read, or to read during a road trip. Jay E. Tria's writing is heartfelt but funny, nostalgic but sarcastic, and is so much fun to read. You really feel like you are hanging out with this group of friends when you're reading. The only aspect it lacks, in my opinion, is I wish Jill had female friends as I feel that is an important part of breakup recovery, although Jill is still growing so maybe that'll be part of her future!

Please give me all the books with hot Asian leads
Book 2 in the series focuses on another band member, and book 3 returns to Shinta and Jill's relationship. I'm a little nervous to read it because I only want the best for them! At the same time, I enjoy Tria's writing so much that I feel I need to read all of her other books ASAP. Basically, if you like romances that go beyond a present-day pairing and instead allow you to get to know the lead's past and watch them grow, or if you like musician-themed romances, or if you have yet to pick up a book by one of the many amazing Filipina romance authors, definitely check out this series! I'll be compiling a list of my favorite contemporary romances from the Philippines that are perfect summer reads and you best believe this series will be on it.

Until then, happy reading!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Review: Haven by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Title: Haven
Author: Rebekah Weatherspoon
Genre: Contemporary Romance/Erotica
Release Date: April 2017
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

This book, y'all. This. Book. Okay, to start, for some reason this is my first Rebekah Weatherspoon, and after reading it I realize I need to get caught up and read her backlist. I read it really quickly, I was super invested, and I'm really hoping for another book in this series which, awesomely, is named Beards & Bondage. Let me back up and give a quick summary of what Haven is about before I fangirl too much. At the same time, I don't want to give too much away because the first few chapters really draw the reader in and if you know too much going in, it might spoil that feeling for you. So basically, there is a hot, bearded, introverted nature photographer named Shep who lives in a cabin in the woods in Northern California. Shep is into BDSM, and hasn't been able to find a partner in his tiny town who shares his interests, so he has to travel to a BDSM club for an annual sex vacation. Then, we have Claudia, who is a successful New Yorker by way of the Caribbean working in the fashion industry. They meet during a traumatic event and, both finding it difficult to recover, turn to each other for comfort.

Accurate depiction of how you'll feel reading this book
Now, what I liked about the book: first of all, Shep. He is one of my favorite heroes I've read in a long time. I like that he is introverted and thoughtful, but still really strong. He's just an overall good person, and exactly the kind of partner you would want if you had something major happen in your life that you were trying to navigate. I also really liked Claudia; she's funny and she has a backbone without being the tropey version of an independent woman. Their relationship feels very real, as a lot of their day that isn't filled with steamy sex is just like them watching Netflix and stuff.

Side note: this book is really funny. One of my favorite scenes is when a box of sex toys and floggers and stuff arrives in the mail and Claudia is like, "Should we do a haul video?" and Shep just says, "What?"; I died. Other stuff I liked about the book: um. This book is like off the charts in the steaminess department. Definitely not a book I would recommend reading at work or on a train or something.

But, unlike some erotica books I've read, the writing is really solid and the plot and the characters are so well done that it isn't just like smuttiness surrounded by a few pages of story. It's actually a really lovely story about recovery and finding the right person after you've already done some work on yourself, and the timeline for their relationship is appropriate so you don't have to read about people saying I love you within the first few chapters. Instead, I felt really invested in the characters and really enjoyed watching them grow and evolve throughout the book.

It's just so good, you guys. So if you are looking for a steamy contemporary romance that is funny and well-written and a little kinkier than your average read, definitely read Haven. It will have you daydreaming of meeting a sensitive mountain man of your own, for sure. Now, excuse me while I go find all of Rebekah Weatherspoon's other books and read them all.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Reading Challenge Check-In

Since we just passed the first quarter of 2017, it seems like a good time for a reading challenge check-in! 2017 has been an odd year so far, both reading-wise and just all around-everything-is falling-apart-wise. But anyway. Back to reading. I'm trying to read even more widely this year than last year, read more, and read authors I've never read before. I'm taking part in a few challenges, some of which have fallen a bit by the wayside, but I'm still feeling good because I've been reading what makes me happy and that's always the best approach to deciding what to read next, in my opinion. Now, on to my reading challenges!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

April Reading Re-Cap

I definitely got hit with a reading slump this month, somewhat because I was busy with work stuff and social life stuff and didn't have a lot of solo reading time, and also because I didn't know what to read to start off the month. I also came to the realization that I don't want to make TBR lists anymore (I may do a post about this), and instead want to let my reading list develop organically based on my mood, what holds came in at the library, and what books I get in my subscription boxes. I think this will help me make my reading life more fun and easy, instead of feeling like I'm falling behind if I'm not reading books on my TBR list right away. Now, onto what I read in April!

Literary Fiction
It was Roxane Gay month for me in April, apparently, and I read An Untamed State, her debut novel, as well as Difficult Women, which is her most recent collection of short stories. I read Bad Feminist last year and really enjoyed her writing, so I knew I had to read more from her. If you've never picked up one of her books before, I highly recommend them. Her writing has a lot of presence and even though she addresses uncomfortable scenarios and subjects, I cannot put her books down. They demand your attention and I think they are must-reads. 

I feel so proud of myself for not just reading one book in a series and then stopping! I'm really terrible at finishing a series, but I was happy to pick up the second Veronica Speedwell mystery by Deanna Raybourn. Like the first, this was another fun historical romp with Veronica and her assistant/friend Stoker. Stoker, who wears an eyepatch and is a taxidermist but also a historian and really hot, is my favorite character. I did feel this book threw in way too many Victorian cliches and there was an instance of Veronica dressing up like a Chinese servant that made me cringe, but overall I enjoyed the book and spending more time with these characters.
These were probably my favorite read of the month. I read Home, the second in Nnedi Okorafor's Binti series, and I finally picked up the first two books from Anne Bishops's the Others series. I don't know why I hadn't read these books sooner! They were so good! I don't know why but I like a lot of mundane details in my urban fantasy, and these books both delivered on that, as well as a unique world, compelling characters, funny dialog, and a good dose of action to mix up the daily activities of Meg Corbyn, an escaped blood prophet, hiding out in a town of vampires, shifters, and other supernatural beings known as the terra indiginae. Basically it reads like a smalltown romance but with really unique urban fantasy elements. I'm reading the third book in May as it just came in at the library.

Young Adult 

The two YA books I read this month are very different, and I enjoyed both of them in different ways. The Skin I'm In is one of those kind of classic coming of age books that I think every teen should read and adults that work with teens should read. The main character, Maleeka, has a very real voice and the book deals with issues of identity, interpersonal relationships, and just what it's like to grow up as a girl. The Falconer, meanwhile, is a steampunk-ish historical fantasy about a 18-year-old girl named Aileana who hunts faeries in Victorian Scotland. It was pretty good, but I would have liked more world building and more backstory about the characters. The dialog was really funny, though, and the author did a great job balancing action and drama with humor. I was a bit annoyed with the ending, but I don't want to give too much away!

What I'm Reading Now... 
The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman is the second book in her Devil's West series. The books feature a young woman protagonist who becomes the left hand of the Devil, patrolling his territories and encountering mysterious evils. It's like a supernatural folk tale with Western vibes, and I really enjoyed the first book so I was happy to pick this one up. I'm almost done reading A Talent for Trickery by Alissa Johnson, which will count towards my Historical Romance Reading Challenge. This book features an ex-thief heroine, Charlotte, and a private investigator who needs her help to solve coded letters left behind at several crimes, one of which was the murder of someone that Charlotte knew since childhood. It has a lot of witty banter back and forth and I like the heroine, plus the hero is strong but not a alphahole. The ebook is a great deal if you are looking for a historical romance that isn't between two nobles! 

As you can see, I'm getting rid of the obligation have a TBR for May. I'm going to just read what I have checked out from the library and a few books I own that will apply to some of my reading changes. I want more flexibility out of my reading life and to not feel like I need to force myself to read something that I'm not in the mood for. So here's to a fun, non-comittal reading month in May!

Happy Reading!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Home (Binti #2)
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Genre: Sci-Fi
Release Date: January 2017
Rating: 5/5 Stars

Home is the second book in the Binti series, which started off with the first book of the same name following a young woman as she traveled from Earth to an alien university called Oomza Uni in hopes of expanding her world view and applying her skills as what is known as a harmonizer to the galactic community. Binti left behind her traditional community, the Himba, on Earth, and hopes to find a place for herself in space. During her journey, her ship is attacked by the Meduse, a jellyfish-like alien race known for being violent and tapping in to a hive mind. I won't go too in depth into the plot of the first book, but basically Binti proves herself and it's clear that she belongs at Oomza Uni where she can share her skills with the academic community, and that she represents new collaboration and cooperation between cultures that in the past have been enemies.

In Home, Binti is still dealing with the trauma of her experiences in the first book. I love the way that Okorafor examines trauma, as Binti is a character who is growing and evolving, rather than a ready-made do-no-wrong heroine. She is trying to reconcile her friendship with Okwu, one of the Meduse who had previously brought violence into her world (Okwu is awesome, btw), and her anxiety attacks that she experiences due to the attack on her ship. In an attempt to heal, Binti tries to go home again and immerse herself in the culture of her people, by going on a pilgrimage with other young women from her community. Her family still hasn't forgiven her for abandoning the traditions of her home, however, and resents her for trying new things by attending Oomza Uni instead of taking over the family business. On Earth, Binti is faced with confronting the parts about herself that are imperfect or maybe not the type of person that she wants to be.

Both books in this series are considered novellas, as they are fairly short in length, but Okorafor packs so much world building, character development, and emotional conflict into these slim volumes that the short length works in favor of the storytelling. In Home, we meet a Binti who is a bit broken and unsure, and I found it refreshing to read about a heroine who isn't perfect and already good at everything. Instead, Home charts Binti's inner journey to find her identity and better understand both where she comes from and where she is going. I highly recommend this series if you enjoy science fiction that features well-developed characters, a unique world, and excellent pacing. The final novella is slated to be released this fall, and I can't wait!